BioTech Foods: Cultivated meat is also natural

For many restless minds, finding and offering different alternatives to animal protein is reacting to the growing demand.

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Dr. Mercedes Vila, BioTech Foods, says her company knows how to produce tissues, but needs to learn how to make it in tons. (Benjamin Ruiz)
Dr. Mercedes Vila, BioTech Foods, says her company knows how to produce tissues, but needs to learn how to make it in tons. (Benjamin Ruiz)

For many restless minds, finding and offering different alternatives to animal protein is reacting to the growing demand.

One of those minds belongs to Dr. Mercedes Vila, executive president of technology at BioTech Foods, in San Sebastián, Spain, lecturer at the Fórum Cárnico, held in Girona, Spain, in November 2019 and organized by the IRTA of Catalonia and TecnoCarne.

According to a report by the United Nations, World Bank, expert interviews and AT Kearny, it is estimated that by 2040, 35% of the protein consumed will come from cultivated meat and 25% from plant-based substitutes. In the meantime, traditional meat will continue to occupy a significant part of the market, at 40%. "It is astonishing that things start to look like this. We began opening minds and this already shows us a reality," said Vila.

No one can predict the future, but we cannot ignore how predictions move. This growth in meat alternatives is a challenge, both for the companies that produce cultivated meat and other products, and as for traditional animal protein producers.

Start-ups of cultivated meat

Vila is aware that, as a company, they have to go with the process and be able to grow at that rate. "Many try to make these alternatives a reality." She noted that animal protein, produced in the traditional way, is at the limits of sustainability, which is why the emergence of simulated meat options of vegetable protein has been explosive.

Some vegetable options of meat alternatives have existed for a long time, but this is the first time that it is not only directed to vegetarians or vegans.

"It does matter that they taste like meat, so that those of us who are not vegetarians can enjoy them," she said.

The trend is clear. The evolution of cultivated or cell-cultured meat companies in recent years is a sign. It all began in 2011 and little by little, companies have been started in different parts of the world. By 2018 and 2019, 50% of the cultivated meat companies were already established. The United States is the country with the most cultivated meat companies, followed by Europe and Asia.

"There are going to be more companies. Those with a technology strategy, capable of scaling up and reducing costs, will be able to grow and introduce it to the market." In all start-ups, the most important thing is technology. It is about techniques that have been used in biomedicine for many years. "We know how to make tissues, but now we need to make them by tons and also at an affordable price."

Intellectual property is what gives value to companies, that is, what technology strategy they have to use to earn a place in the market. Some 55 patents have already been filed, which are doubled each year. All start-ups have the same challenges, but each one with a different technology to cope with the same issues.

Technological challenges

We get the cells from live animals that will produce meat for us. The cells have to be fed, they have to proliferate to make tissue in a bioreactor and from all this process, we get the product.

The first technological challenge is that of the initial cells and from there, the company has to position itself. "There have been requests from some of the companies for the pharmaceutical industry - that has cells for biomedicine - to also start making cell lines available for food," says the BioTech Foods directive.

Once the cells are chosen, they must be fed into culture media. The pharmaceutical industry has also worked in this field. In this way, this industry may decide to make cheaper culture media to bring that technology to the food world. The other option is to make your own feed.

After this, we have to see where cells are going to develop, and this is where bioreactors appear on stage. Bioreactors can be manufactured by the company and decide on its capacity, or acquired them in the market from companies manufacturing them for pharmaceutical or food fermentation tanks.

Natural process

Cultivated meat is simply an alternative and there has to be a change in our way of thinking, Vila said. The equipment being used is nothing foreign. Bioreactors or fermentors are not new. They are used to produce yogurts, wine, or beer. “It’s just as natural as we can consider that of yogurt, assisted by bacteria, or beer, assisted by yeasts.”

Producing tissue is a natural process. “Those of us who are engaged in cultivated meat, avoid artificial things, because the process is not artificial.”

The advantage is that it allows many chances that animal-based models do not allow. Vila assures that cultivated meat is not sensitive to climatic conditions, nor does it require a lot of space or agricultural land, which is of considerable importance in countries where space restrictions exist.

It also reduces the environmental impact of transportation and cooling, as well as of waste disposal, as there is more flexibility to adapt to demand, because production processes are shorter. It could therefore be estimated that there would be less losses.

Consumer acceptance

Another challenge is consumer acceptance. The first study in the United States showed that in terms of age, the younger, the more they consider it as a viable alternative.

In a study carried out in the most populated cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, among others) they found that regardless of gender, city or age range, up to 55 years of age there is a 25% acceptance of people who would try it and who would be able to integrate it into their shopping basket, as something recurrent.

The study shows that about 10% would probably accept it and another 20 - 22% said they don't know, that they need more information. This means that, apart from acceptance, we have to be well prepared by the time these products arrive. Communication work will be very important so that this type of process can be understood, what the product is and that consumers can understand it.

Legislation

On the other hand, there are regulations. All the so-called novel foods are those that have not existed until now, so they must be regulated. “In our case, we have positioned ourselves as natural cells, we do not use any kind of genetic modification, so files are submitted to EFSA within the identification of novel food.”

In the novel food process, expiration date, degradability, understanding how to cook it, production process, nutritional composition tables, are requested, along with the specifications of each part of the process, such as the cells origin.

There is no background of this new food, but there is of its source: pork, chicken, or beef, which have a perfect record, with first and last names, and traceability from the origin up to the end product. You can track how the cells behave and modify, how the protein is modified.

Levels of use, anticipated intake, dosage, absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, and obviously toxicological and allergen information must also be reported.

Once these assessments are made, EFSA evaluates each company, because all production models are different, they probably result in different products and each will have different labeling and traceability.

In the United States, just over a year ago, the USDA and FDA agreement to legislate cultured cells from poultry, swine and cattle emerged. In Asia, in countries like Singapore or Japan, which do not have sufficient resources for animal production, this would be an important solution to implement.

Is a future possible without cell culture?

We start with issues and end up with solutions. It is necessary to think about health, the environment, animal and human rights, business, and the economy.

If we start producing this meat or animal protein, it means that production processes will require 80% less land, 94% less water, it will produce 76% less greenhouse gas emissions. There would be no need to sacrifice animals, and there would probably be greater financial security by avoiding problems of food safety scandals, the effects of natural disasters and the costly product withdrawals that this entails.

There are also cultivated fats

Everybody wants healthier food, a clean label, more protein, but foods have to be enjoyed. Fat is used for many reasons: It makes foods juicy, delicious, and nutritional.

There are interesting lines of cell farming products, which bring great benefits, such as fats cultivated in animal cells. Dr. Raquel Revilla, of Cubiq Foods in Valencia, Spain, says that they focus on special fats that cannot be dispensed with, such as omega-3 (DHA and EPA) to introduce into healthy foods, in a new solution: Structured fat.

Traditional sources of these fats − world fisheries and algae production − cannot cover the demand. In addition, the omega-3s have the problem that they taste very badly, and the last thing we would like is that the foods to which they are added would taste as sardines.

Raquel Revilla Cubiq Foods Grasa Cultivada

Dr. Raquel Revilla, Cubiq Foods, producers of micro-encapsulated fat. (Benjamin Ruiz)

Cubiq Foods has a different system than animal biopsy. They use duck eggs, as stem cells can also be obtained from an embryo. There is enough availability of duck eggs and they do not represent an animal sacrifice. Ducks are migratory birds that under certain conditions produce animal type omega-3, in high concentrations. It is a standard process of producing cells, in bioreactors, that are differentiated to produce fatty tissue, which under certain conditions produce omega-3. They are then purified, extracted, and concentrated to provide a lower cost product.

It is a very clean, pure product, free of marine pollutants (such as heavy metals) and does not have the problems of the fishing industry. Its presentation is in micro-encapsulation, it does not break in the food or mouth, resists frying, it does not spill, is completely stable, nor is it oxidized, has no interfering flavors and it is absorbed in the intestine. It can be used in meat products such as hamburgers, sausages, nuggets, frozen foods, among others.

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